State Republicans killed an Indiana city's lawsuit to stop illegal gun sales. Why?

INDIANAPOLIS — Almost 25 years after suing the firearms industry for failing to prevent illegal gun sales, the northwestern Indiana city of Gary won a critical victory last fall when a judge ordered gun manufacturers to hand years of production and sales records.

But in March, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a new law retroactively banning cities from bringing such lawsuits, effectively halting the case. Republicans said the gun industry is not responsible for illegal sales. Critics say the legislation shows lawmakers don’t consider ending gun crime a priority and reflects their apathy for Gary’s majority Black residents.

“There’s gun violence everywhere you turn in America,” longtime Gary resident Rev. Dena Holland-Neal said. “And someone has to be accountable.”

Gary is more racially diverse than the rest of Indiana and, sitting just east of Chicago, is one of its few Democratic strongholds. Most of its estimated 67,970 population is Black in contrast to 10% of people statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hospital chaplain Carmen McKee, who counsels victims of gun violence and their families, said racism underscores the actions of policymakers who dismiss Gary’s needs as, “‘It’s just Gary’ or ’It’s just another area of people of color.’”

“But yet they would not allow it to happen in their area,” McKee said.

Gary was among dozens of U.S. cities to sue major gun-makers and sellers in reaction to the out-of-control homicide rates and violent crime of the 1990s. But the other cities’ cases fell by the wayside, leaving Gary’s as the last suit standing when, in November, a Lake County judge ordered manufacturers to produce decades of business records.

“This case has persevered because it’s a valid claim,” said Rodney Pol, an attorney on the case and a Democratic state senator representing Gary.

Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature moved quickly to approve the new law this year, stipulating that only the state’s attorney general can bring civil action against a firearm or ammunition manufacturer, and made it retroactive to Aug. 27, 1999, three days before Gary filed its lawsuit.

Rep. Chris Jeter, who wrote the legislation, told the House Committee on Judiciary that the judge’s order would result in excessive costs for firearms manufacturers, which he said should not be held liable for illegal sales.

“I just think that there’s an effort to try to end this use of the court system as a weapon against gun manufacturers,” Jeter said.

He made no attempt to hide that Gary was his intended target.

“This bill is an effort to take one last shot to try to eliminate this last pending case,” he said.

Jeter did not respond to an Associated Press interview request.

The vocal minority Democratic caucus in the Indiana Legislature decried the new law for favoring firearms companies. State Rep. Ragen Hatcher, a former prosecutor who represents Gary, called it a “slap in the face” for attorneys and judges.

“That is something for the court to decide,” Hatcher said.

Days after the governor signed the law, gun manufacturers asked the court to end Gary’s suit. The judge stayed the discovery Tuesday until the conflict with the new law is resolved. A status conference is scheduled for May 8.

Attorneys for the defendants either did not respond to messages from the AP or declined to comment on the case.

Several of the gun manufacturers and retailers named in the lawsuit are on the board of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which lobbies for the firearms and ammunition industries in Indiana and statehouses nationwide.

Lobbying records first reported by ProPublica and The Indianapolis Star show NSSF spent tens of thousands of dollars more on lobbying in Indiana last year than in the previous three years. Reports for this session haven’t yet been filed.

“This case is, and always was, frivolous, an abuse of the legal system,” Lawrence G. Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel for the group, said in a recent statement.

The Brady Center, a national organization supporting gun-control policy, represents Gary in the lawsuit. Philip Bangle, senior litigation counsel, said Brady plans to challenge the new state law.

For Gary residents and officials, the looming end of the lawsuit is a reminder of how the firearms industry has changed and the continued devastating impact of gun violence.

Technology and other changes over the past 20 years have made it easier to modify and re-sell illegal guns, Gary Deputy Police Chief Brian Evans said.

Violent crime offenders have trended younger during his three decades on the force, and often they are using guns acquired through illegal means, Evans said.

The case has been around for so long that Holland-Neal doubts it’s even a topic of conversation among younger residents or recent arrivals. But she worries about the prevalence of firearms in her city and the rising tide of gun violence nationwide.

“There’s such a need for this country to figure out some way to put some laws together that address gun violence, that make a difference,” she said. “How that’s going to happen? I’m honest with you, I have no idea.”

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